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Markus Howard’s openness sheds light on mental health, athletes, and the stigma that goes with it

Markus Howard opened up about his mental health on TV. Let’s chat about it

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Providence Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

This article is dedicated to my grandpa who just passed away last week and a high school classmate, who recently committed suicide. I love you both.

During the broadcast of ESPN’S College GameDay on February 9th, a video segment featuring Markus Howard aired. In the video, Howard opened up about mental health and the stigma that oftentimes surrounds it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a watch.

It’s really a beautiful video (shouts to MU grad Jen Lada), and props to Markus for opening up about a super important topic in today’s society. Markus is a hard-working guy and a truly fantastic ambassador for Marquette and student athletes everywhere. No one is perfect, but when you see Markus going off for anywhere between 25 and 53 points a night, it can be easy to think, “damn, this kid has it all.” Well, that’s not true. Even the physically strong can suffer from unseen challenges, like mental illness.

In the past, there has been a stigma for mental health, especially for men. According to Dr. Michael Friedman, the stigma of mental health is making us sicker. From a young age, kids will call other kids who are different from them “weird” or “crazy.” The stigma gets worse as kids get into teen years where the “different” kids are now “freaks” or even label those kids a “danger to society.” The stigma says men who suffer from mental illness are weak and less of a man. Well, to the people that say that, f*** off.

Many men suffer from mental illness, myself included. That’s right, I said it, myself included. According to many therapists and psychiatrists, for the past eight years I have been suffering from severe anxiety, depression and bipolarism (I don’t know if I said that right, but it made sense to me and you get the idea). This article isn’t about me though, it’s about mental health as a whole and how student athletes in universities suffer from mental health problems just like you and I do.

From the NCAA’s website:

The Sports Science Institute, which aims to provide college athletes with the best environment for safety, excellence and wellness through research, education, best practices, and collaboration with member schools, national governing bodies, key medical and youth sport organizations, and the public and private sectors, believes mental health is a part of, not apart from, athlete health. Mental health exists on a continuum, with resilience and thriving on one end of the spectrum and mental health disorders that disrupt a college athlete’s functioning and performance at the other. We strive to improve access to quality mental healthcare with the goal of creating a culture where care seeking for mental health issues is as normative as care seeking for physical injuries.

This is literally the first thing on their Mental Health page, and it’s extremely important -- and encouraging -- that they recognize mental health as a part of the athlete’s health. Howard sits on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee as a men’s basketball rep at Marquette, giving him a front-row seat to helping the NCAA shape the way they look at mental health. The NCAA is currently doing research to check in on athletes, asking them about their college experience, recruitment, on campus support, health and wellbeing, time commitments, and finances (no shocker on that one).

While women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from mental health disorders (according to the American Psychiatric Association), that does not mean men do not suffer. If you add in the stress of playing sports on top of what is happening in their brain, you have a combination that is potentially life threatening. Mental health is a matter of safety, not only because of the risk of suicide, but it can also affect long term physical health too. According to Mentalhelp.net, long term untreated mental illness and stress can lead to weakened immune system, problems in the digestive, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and reproductive systems, skin problems and some scientists say it can lead to cancer indirectly. Mental illness is also known to cause extreme weight loss and malnutrition as well.

In 2013, Dr. Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer for the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute, stated mental health is the number one health and safety concern in the NCAA. Over 18 percent of the American population suffer from some type of mental illness. OVER 18 PERCENT, that is almost one out of every five, if my math is correct. Suicide is listed as the third leading cause of death among student athletes. According to a study done by University of Washington medical professors, over the course of nine years 477 student athletes passed away and 35% of those deaths were by suicide.

According to Mental Health America, men are less likely to seek help for depression, substance abuse and stressful life events due to reluctance to talk, social norms aka the stigma that surrounds men’s mental health and downplaying symptoms. The worry becomes that student-athletes are trained to fight through tough obstacles when it comes to their athletic ventures, and that mindset leads to reluctance to open up and rely on outside help to deal with mental health issues that they may be confronting.

One way we can stop that problem is getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental health. Markus Howard is the latest in a string of athletes opening up about mental health, making huge steps in ending the stigma around mental health. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps opened up about his battles with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“For the longest time, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness because that’s kind of what society teaches us,” Phelps told USA Today in 2017. “That’s especially true from an athlete’s perspective. If we ask for help, then we’re not this big macho athlete that people can look up to. Well, you know what? If someone wants to call me weak for asking for help, that’s their problem. Because I’m saving my own life.”

Earlier this year, Virginia Basketball’s Kyle Guy bared his soul to SB Nation about anxiety and handling the fallout of the Cavaliers’ historic NCAA tournament loss to UMBC, which included receiving death threats. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Terry Bradshaw, and Kevin Love have all also spoken out.

It is also huge to have the support to talk to someone about how you are doing and what is going on in your life. In the video on Markus Howard, Coach Wojciechowski says, “I think it is really important for athletes to have an outlet, even outside of our staff that can kinda just give you a clear eyed look at what’s going on.” He goes on to say, “To be able to go up and talk about your feelings is maybe something that wouldn’t have been done as openly when I played, these college kids go through a lot and they need to be able to open up and feel vulnerable, express their feelings and that’s gonna make them a better person, first of all, and it will also help them on the court.”

Towards the end of the video, Sam Hauser says Markus is doing this because he wants to spread awareness and encourage not only student athletes, but everybody to ask for help if they are going through something, because the worst thing you can do is deal with it alone. Sam’s right. Do not deal with it alone because like I said earlier, almost one out of every five people are dealing with some sort of mental illness. You are not alone.

If you need help please, please, please tell someone. Whether it be your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends or literally anyone. Hell, you can even hit me up in the DM’s if you want. I love talking to people about this stuff and would love to help someone going through some of the stuff I am as well. If none of those options are cool with you, most schools offer a counseling center of some sort or you can find a professional therapist near you.

If you need immediate help, please call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. If you are reading this and going through something right now, please know that you matter and that so many people love you and care about you.